KAMPALA, 15 July (IRIN) - At least 1,100 Rwandans who fled their country in recent months and sought asylum in neighbouring Uganda have been denied refugee status and advised to return home, officials said on Friday.
"We were not convinced by the reasons they gave during our interviews. They told us that they came to Uganda looking for land and they were citing property wrangles back home," David Kazungu, Uganda's assistant commissioner for refugees, said.
"Many said they were told that there is plenty of land in Uganda and they decided to come in. We would not grant them refugee status and we have encouraged them to return home," he added.
He said, however, that the refugee eligibility committee had found 80 of the asylum seekers "with well-founded fears of persecution".
The Rwandans recently fled Omutara, Gitarama, Vyumba and Kibungo provinces in Rwanda, and have since been living in southwestern Uganda, near the refugee settlement of Nakivale.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, confirmed Uganda's refusal to accord the Rwandans refugee status, and said the process did not contravene any international convention.
"The process was done under internationally acceptable standards and was very transparent. Two of our refugee protection officers participated in the screening exercise and we are satisfied with the way it was carried out," Roberta Russo, UNHCR spokeswoman in Kampala, said.
Kazungu said the rejected asylum seekers, mainly women and children, had 90 days to appeal the decision.
Russo said UNHCR was ready to support both the government and the asylum seekers during the review period: "We shall provide legal help and counselling," she said.
Uganda hosts an estimated 14,000 Rwandan refugees, living mainly in settlements in the west. Some 1,500 arrived in the country more recently, citing persecution in Rwanda.
Relief workers in April said some Rwandans had fled out fear of arrest and prosecution under Rwanda's traditional justice system, known as "Gacaca".
Gacaca courts began operating across Rwanda in March as part of the government's efforts to clear the regular national courts' massive backlog of cases relating to the country's 1994 genocide.
Nearly one in 10 of Rwanda's eight million people face charges stemming from the genocide, according to official estimates. An estimated 10,000 have to date been tried before national courts.
Based on a traditional village model of delivering justice, the Gacaca courts have the power to acquit or convict people accused of participation in the genocide, and to hand down sentences ranging from community service to life imprisonment.
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